Journalism grad merges photojournalism with sustainability, design

Black and white portrait of a young man

ASU Cronkite School graduate Donovan Johnson. Courtesy photo

By Lauren Boykins

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2024 graduates.

Donovan Johnson carries a passion for photography, sustainability and design.

That passion has driven Johnson to excel as a student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where he will graduate from in May with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication and a minor in design studies. Johnson will receive the Top Innovator Award at the Cronkite School convocation.

Johnson’s love for photojournalism deepened when he traveled to the Ecuadorian Amazon last May with ASU’s School of Sustainability. Johnson trekked with the other students as part of a study abroad program to document their experience while seeking to learn more about the Kichwa and Waorani communities. 

“It was the craziest experience in my whole entire life,” Johnson said. “I came back and was able to host a photo exhibition and give money back to the organization that housed us in the Amazon.” 

Johnson hosted a photo exhibition through the creative agency he co-owns. He raised money from the event to give back and promote sustainability research in the Amazon rainforest and the Iyarina Center for Learning, a nonprofit organization that promotes learning and research in Indigenous knowledge and sustainability for the future of the Ecuadorian Amazon.

“I’m from Surprise, Arizona. Going out to the Amazon rainforest has completely left my eyes wide open. That experience as a photographer is super fulfilling,” he said. 

Johnson recently reflected on his time at the Cronkite School and what he hopes for his future in design and sustainability.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in? 

Answer: I took a class my sophomore year of high school. It was a journalism class and, at first, I didn’t want to stay in it. My teacher told me "You know, you have a knack for it; maybe you should try joining yearbook." At first, I wanted to do student council, and she convinced me, so I went to this camp over the summer. It was like a yearbook camp. It was super nerdy. We went out and basically designed the magazine for a week at San Diego State University. At that moment it was just basic curation — a lot of designing a magazine, using typography, picking fonts and colors — and that’s when I realized it was graphic design. I liked designing, and eventually photography was a unit in one of the classes I was taking. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU? 

A: I chose ASU because they offered one of the best journalism programs in the country. It was also close to home for me, so it felt like a no-brainer. While I am not a traditional journalist, the skills I gained in camera operation, Adobe Creative Suite, digital marketing and networking at Cronkite have undoubtedly prepared me for my professional career. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU? 

A: Emmanuel Lozano. He was one of my photojournalism professors, and he taught me a lot about photography and helped me grow as a photographer because I consider myself a pretty stubborn person. So he was able to give me criticism to make me a better photographer. I shout out him, but also there’s this professor I have from my design course, William Heywood. He teaches a class called Creative Environment. It’s super interesting because he’s taught me a lot more about the creative side of things, prioritizing yourself, your well-being first, being a creative and how to live that out. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school? 

A: At this point in school, you can be as creative as you want and build something for yourself. There are no boxes, there’s nobody telling you to do it a certain way. When you do these projects, put yourself into it, because if you embed yourself into what you’re creating, people are going to resonate with it. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life? 

A: I really like Fusion on First because I live there. I’ve gotten the opportunity to work with the (ASU Popular Music program) as a photographer and videographer, seeing how that community works. That space is a really creative space, and the flex spaces down there too — that’s my favorite place to work and collaborate. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation? 

A: I am working in the Carnegie-Knight News21 fellowship over the summer. And then I own my own creative agency that me and my friend founded, called om*. We do photography, videography, graphic design, live DJ events, production, music production — and it’s all in-house. That’s something I’m looking forward to after college, growing my own company while also just continuing to learn more. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: The task I would solve with that money is to have more informal education for students who learn differently and are into creative industries. That’s the only way we’re going to change the world. That’s the best way to innovate. It’s investing in the generation that’s going to come after us.

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